Pop Playground
Underground Folk: The Primer



folk music and the modern world have never quite trusted each other. But folk has begun, slowly and suspiciously, to accept technology: broken amps, crackly delay pedals, junk shop electric guitars, and science lab sine wave generators. In fact, it seems like the only piece of working technology that the genre has embraced is the CD-R. Lucky, too. By releasing their records on CD-R the artists and labels spend little money and make fewer compromises.

But where do you get these CD-R’s? What if, like me, you're a fickle hipster, and you still really want to hear this music, but the bands aren't coming through your town? Well, sometimes you can order straight from the website of the band. There are also a few web shops like Volcanic Tongue, Boa Melody Bar, and Harvest Time in the UK; Eclipse, Tone Vendor, and Skulls of Heaven in the US; or Ikuisuus in Finland.

And there are the labels. This doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive guide—no such thing would be possible—the movement is too big and too diffuse, and many of the best artists have no internet presence and have never done any press. There's nothing here from Finland's thriving free folk scene. Plus, where does free folk end and noise, drone, psychedelia, improv, minimalism, or what-have-you begin? I don't know. Neither do you. So call this an introduction.

Brad Rose from Tulsa, Oklahoma, runs the prolific Digitalis and Foxglove labels as well as the Foxy Digitalis webzine. He also plays in several bands including the North Sea, Alligator Crystal Moth, and the Golden Oaks. For a great primer, check out Gold Leaf Branches, a three CD-R, sixty track compilation that's just come out on Digitalis. “I think a lot of labels are afraid to take the chance on investing thousands of dollars into a lot of this music. The audience for some of these releases is admittedly narrow, but those people are still out there who want to hear it.”

Simon Loynes from Cambridge, UK, runs Harvest Time, a record label and online shop. He also plays in the bands Lionshare and Haeti. “Free folk isn't so much a style of music, as a way of looking at and creating music. It's an aesthetic, if you like, of the thought process, not the end result. Hence the abundance of CD-Rs.”

Ed Hardy from Bullhead, Arizona, runs Eclipse, a record label and online shop. “CD-Rs are a great format. CD-Rs get artists exposure through reviews in magazines and webzines, whereas before CD-Rs they wouldn't even have a release to submit for review.”

Josephine Foster is a singer songwriter from Chicago, sometimes compared to Joanna Newsom, who has released albums both on CD-R and through the Locust Music label, both solo and in the band Born Heller. Does it bother her that her music is so hard to get hold of? “Not really. I think music is like water and will find its way where there is least resistance. So if the recording is meant for more ears, it will follow is own natural channels.”

Glenn Donaldson from San Fransisco, is the founder of the Jewelled Antler collective. He also has a label. “A troubling sameness has crept into the world of CD-R music in the last year or so. The internet is partially to blame; sometimes art benefits from some isolation in order to thrive and find its own voice.”

Nemo Bidstrup from Portland, Maine, runs the Time Lag label, which releases lavishly-packaged vinyl and CD-Rs. Why does he think the free folk scene has got so attached to CD-R? “I don't. That's silly. I'm sure any folk musician out there would much rather be releasing their stuff on vinyl, or at least as a proper CD. But CD-Rs are quick and easy, so anyone can do it.”

David Colohan from the Irish Midlands, runs the Deserted Village label and plays in bands including Agitated Radio Pilot, Murmansk, United Bible Studies, Children of the Stones, and the Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree. “There is something really wonderful about knowing that the CD-R you hold in your hand has been painstakingly and lovingly put together by someone who really cares for what they are doing.”

Clay Ruby from Madison, Wisconsin, runs 23 Productions and helps out with several other labels including the cassette-only Skullfucking Tapes. He also plays in the band Davenport Family. “CD-R is the folk reclaiming their art form and the networks through which these expressions are disseminated.”

Steve Krakow from Chicago, runs the Galactic Zoo Disk label, edits the Galactic Zoo Dossier magazine, and curates the Million Tongues music festival. He also plays in the bands Plastic Crimewave Sound and Goldblood. “I'm not sure there is any sort of coherent ‘scene,’ just a group of somewhat struggling artists into the immediacy of the medium, bypassing bigger studio costs to release more homespun recordings that most labels would probably ignore.”

Antony Milton from Wellington, New Zealand, runs the Pseudoarcana label. He also plays in several bands including Claypipe and Birchville Cat Motel. “Folk is like the new old punk. I think people are drawn to the new folk scene because it offers a fairly obvious alternative to mass market and commodity-driven 'alternative music'. People are growing beards and not wanting to go to war with the Middle East.”


By: Ned Beauman
Published on: 2006-07-05
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